THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Sox bullpen has had its work cut out so far

Josh Beckett’s 7.46 ERA has helped bloat the Sox’ team ERA to an AL-worst 5.11. Josh Beckett’s 7.46 ERA has helped bloat the Sox’ team ERA to an AL-worst 5.11. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / May 10, 2010

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The Red Sox woke up yesterday with the worst earned run average in the American League. At 5.108, it was just a tick worse than the Kansas City Royals, who were at 5.105.

Through the first 31 games, the Sox allowed six or more runs 17 times. Opponents have scored eight or more runs seven times.

If the Sox are to become contenders, that will have to improve, and markedly so. But general manager Theo Epstein has only limited avenues to make changes.

The top three starters — Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jon Lester — are signed to long-term contracts and are considered cornerstone players in the organization. Daisuke Matsuzaka has $26.4 million left on his contract, which makes him virtually untradeable. Despite his 9.90 ERA through two starts, the Sox remain committed to him.

Clay Buchholz had trade value. But he is 3-3 with a 3.82 ERA, making him one of the better performers in the rotation.

But changes could come from within the six-man bullpen. Sox relievers have a 4.93 ERA, more than a run higher than it was last season. They have been tagged with seven losses and are averaging fewer strikeouts per nine innings (6.8) than last season (8.2).

A big part of the problem for the relievers has been overuse. Sox starters are averaging just under six innings per game. Only the Tigers and Athletics have used their relievers more innings than the Sox have.

“I think that we know any time you get to your bullpen before you want to, things have to go perfect or you’re going to give up runs, and that’s every bullpen in the league,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “If your starters get you to a certain point of the game, then you always are able to shoot for kind of that end in sight, or that guy to put out the potential fire. When you get there too early, you don’t have that all the time. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, but things have to really go your way.’’

Lefthander Scott Schoeneweis has allowed 18 hits and 10 walks over 12 1/3 innings and is a candidate to be replaced. But while Francona admitted that Schoeneweis has pitched poorly, he also pointed out that he has been a victim of circumstance several times.

“Any time you leave a guy like that out there for 50 pitches, that’s a lot,’’ he said. “And he’s done that a couple times. He’s taken the ball when we’ve needed him to take the ball, and he’s given up some runs, but it’s saved someone else. That’s part of the responsibility, which he understands.’’

Ramon Ramirez has been inconsistent as well. He has retired the first batter 10 of 13 times and not allowed any of the four runners he has inherited to score. But he also has 5.93 ERA.

Manny Delcarmen has pitched well, but Francona has not trusted him in late-inning situations for the most part.

“For me, Manny and Ramon can kind of be swing guys,’’ Francona said. “When I say swing guys, they can pitch in multiple roles. Especially Manny because of his ability to get lefthanders out, and it makes everybody else better.’’

Delcarmen believes the bullpen will improve once the starters do.

“You’d love for everything to fall into place every night,’’ he said. “It hasn’t been like that early and we’ve pitched a lot. But we’ll be OK.

“To me, we have a lot of guys who can pitch in different situations. It’s going to work out.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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